By Prof Atta-ur-Rahman

Cyborg insects can be made to fly over through ventilation systems and perch themselves on the walls of the room in which high profile national personalities may be sitting and having a confidential conversation on a matter of national strategic importance. Similar cyborg beetles and small rats have been developed by scientists at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology

WITH THE miniaturisation of electronics and rapid developments in machine intelligence, new applications are emerging that can be used for espionage and for defence purposes. One of these is the development of cyborg insects – these are living insects that have been fitted with tiny cameras and microphone systems and that can be remotely controlled by secure frequency signals from miles away.

These insects can be made to fly over through ventilation systems and perch themselves on the walls of the room in which our president, prime minister or army chief may be sitting and having a confidential conversation on a matter of national strategic importance.

The pictures and sounds collected can then be transmitted to a foreign embassy a few miles away, thereby jeopardising our national security. These insect drones have been developed by Caltechs Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena, and the project has been funded by NASA (www.tinyurl.com/ojwmdq). The technology involves a remote controlled chip planted in the brain of the insects or connected to their nerve cells. This allows them to be manipulated from a distance quite easily. These new types of defence weapons developed through funding mainly by the US defence agencies may prove to be of critical importance and nations need to protect their strategic assets to protect themselves. Similar cyborg beetles and small rats have been developed by scientists at the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology.

The use of robots to perform specific tasks is best illustrated by the automobile industry where many routine operations are performed by robotic arms. The pharmaceutical industry also employs high speed bioassays using robots that can screen 50,000 or more compounds in a day.

Now scientists and engineers at the FRAC Centre in Orléans, France, have developed flying robots (quadrocopters) to construct a six meter-tall building to demonstrate the viability of this technology for construction purposes. The tower has been built by a large number of such flying robots that pick up foam bricks and put them into place while acting in concert. They are fitted with various sensors and controls that allow them to communicate with one another and avoid collisions while performing their tasks. They are highly manoeuvrable since they can perform spirals, curves and loops without any problems. Construction of buildings in the future may take place using such technologies.

In another exciting development, bacteria are being used to perform specific tasks. For example Prof Sylvain Martel and colleagues at the NanoRobotics Laboratory of Ecole Polytechnique de Montreal, Canada have found that they can use a magnetic device to control and command certain types of bacteria. These (magnetotactic) bacteria have built-in natural compasses (magnetosomes) and they can be made to follow the pull from magnetic fields.

The French scientists used external magnetic fields to control a swarm of 5,000 bacteria to build a small pyramid from tiny epoxy bricks within 15 minutes. The bacteria could also be forced to swim through blood vessels. The scientists are now planning to use these tiny work horses to act as engines that will propel larger nanorobots carrying specific drugs to the site of infections!

Bacteria are also being developed for home lighting! Scientists working in the Dutch electronics company, Philips, are exploring the use of bacteria to light bulbs. The “Microbial Home” concept developed by Philips uses glowing bioluminescent bacteria to produce natural light. The bacteria are fed with natural methane that may be easily produced from household waste. The light is produced by a chemical reaction through a process known as “bioluminescence”. The reaction involves an enzyme luciferase that acts on the substrate luciferin to produce flashes of light. The fireflies (“jugnoo”) found in the evening in summers in Punjab use this phenomenon, as do certain deep sea jelly fishes.

In Pakistan the seeds have been sown for the promotion of research and development in various fields of science and engineering through the efforts of the Higher Education Commission (HEC) during the last decade. This is evident from the spectacular growth in international research publications from Pakistan that have grown from only 600 per year in the year 2000 to about 8,000 per year presently. Indeed it is remarkable that through the careful and relentless promotion of research by the HEC, Pakistan today has overtaken India in terms of research publications per million population.

Carefully thought out interventions by our government can catalyze growth and make a huge difference in technology-related sectors. Take the example of the growth of mobile telephony in Pakistan. When I was the federal minister of Science and Technology, the Information Technology and Telecommunication Division was a part of this ministry.

There were only 300,000 mobile telephones and mobile telephony was not expanding for the previous eight years as the prices for making calls were formidably high and the common man was reluctant to have such phones as one had to pay for even receiving calls, not just to make them. After careful consideration and discussion with colleagues, we decided to make some key interventions. Ufone was launched, prices of making calls were drastically reduced and the system of charging on calls received was changed so that clients no longer had to pay for receiving calls – this was the so-called “Calling Party Pays (CPP)” regime. As a result a miracle happened. An explosive growth began, and from 0.3 million mobile phones, we have now reached more than 11 million mobile phones in Pakistan – regarded by many as the hottest sector of the economy.

A similar situation was seen in the information technology scenario in Pakistan in the year 2000. Here a serious difficulty was the lack of properly trained manpower since there were hardly any good departments of information technology or PhD level qualified faculty in our universities. A large number of bright young men and women were therefore sent abroad for PhD level training in order to strengthen the universities.

A 15-year tax holiday was given in 2001 to boost the IT industry and a number of other measures taken. As a result the software industry has expanded by a remarkable thirty fold within a decade, from only $30 million in the year 2001 to about a billion dollars presently. The total IT industry is estimated to be about $2.5 billion, growing at a rate of about 20 percent annually.

Pakistans first satellite Paksat 1 was placed in space, thereby securing a strategically important slot in space. In 2001 all major airports in Pakistan had been equipped with wireless internet facilities, that were absent in major European airports. After my meeting with the CEO of Intel, a collaborative project was initiated with funding from Intel through which internet kiosks were set up at all major airports of Pakistan. Within a matter of hardly two years during 2000-2002, the foundations of a modern IT industry were laid. Pakistan must set aside at least seven percent of its GDP on education, science and technology if it wants to compete in this fast changing world.

The writer is former Federal Minister for Science and Technology, former Chairman Higher Education Commission. He can be reached at:  ibne_ sina@hotmail.com